As world population grows, and more people move to cities and suburbs, they place greater stress on the operating system of our whole planet. But urbanization and increasing densities also present our best opportunity for improving sustainability, by transforming urban development into desirable, lower-carbon, compact and walkable communities and business centers. Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley seek to demonstrate that a sustainable built and natural environment can be achieved through ecodesign, which integrates the practice of planning and urban design with environmental conservation, through normal business practices and the kinds of capital programs and regulations already in use in most communities. Ecodesign helps adapt the design of our built environment to both a changing climate and a rapidly growing world, creating more desirable places in the process. In six comprehensively illustrated chapters, the authors explain ecodesign concepts, including the importance of preserving and restoring natural systems while also adapting to climate change; minimizing congestion on highways and at airports by making development more compact, and by making it easier to walk, cycle and take trains and mass transit; crafting and managing regulations to insure better placemaking and fulfill consumer preferences, while incentivizing preferred practices; creating an inviting and environmentally responsible public realm from parks to streets to forgotten spaces; and finally how to implement these ecodesign concepts. Throughout the book, the ecodesign framework is demonstrated by innovative practices that are already underway or have been accomplished in many cities and suburbs—from Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm to False Creek North in Vancouver to Battery Park City in Manhattan, as well as many smaller-scale examples that can be adopted in any community. Ecodesign thinking is relevant to anyone who has a part in shaping or influencing the future of cities and suburbs – designers, public officials, and politicians.
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About the Author
Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. An architect and planner as well as an educator, he is the author of numerous books and articles on the theory and practice of city design. Along with PennDesign colleagues Gary Hack and Stefan Al, he teaches an on-line course, Designing Cities, available on Coursera. Larry Beasley is the retired Co-chief Planner for the City of Vancouver. He is now the "Distinguished Practice Professor of Planning" at the University of British Columbia and the founding principal of Beasley and Associates, an international planning consultancy. He is a Member of the Order of Canada, his country’s premier civilian honor for lifetime achievement.
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Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs
By Jonathan Barnett, Larry Beasley
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2015 Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley
All rights reserved.
Ecodesign: Changing the Urban Growth Model
A great irony of modern times: As the majority of people in the world have shifted to living in cities, we have evolved a form of city that is not very hospitable to our everyday needs. As we blanket the world with these cities, we have evolved a form of urbanization that is not compatible with our environment. Our settlements and their settings are in a state of profound contradiction. The more people move to cities and suburbs, the less satisfactory they become, and they place increasing stress on the operating system of our whole planet. Ultimately, this is a dangerous situation.
Legislation and public awareness of sustainability have produced big improvements in air and water quality, but there are still massive problems, especially with carbon emissions. There is huge skepticism about whether it is possible to do anything about these problems without hurting the economy and making it difficult to accommodate necessary growth.
New kinds of urban design plans and guidelines that shape development, preserve and restore older areas, and construct well-liked public places have made many cities more livable; but most real-estate investment still produces routine structures that do little to create attractive places, and urban growth continues to destabilize the natural landscape and spread out cities far more than is necessary.
In developed countries, new construction almost always takes place after a complicated and often contentious official approval process. What then gets built frequently follows simplistic development templates that ignore the rich diversity of human needs and the complex forces of the natural environment. Too often, people assume that political gridlock and real-estate market forces make a more sustainable and livable growth model impossible.
We don't agree, for two reasons.
First of all, urban growth is produced by the interaction of many component parts, and each of these components has been significantly improved somewhere. If all these improvements could be put together, they would produce a far different and superior growth pattern. Some places have gone further and now have improved growth templates already in operation, at least at a district level. In this book, we have assembled the component parts of a superior growth model from innovations that have already become reality. The political and economic feasibility of the examples we describe has thus already been established.
Our second reason is that climate scientists, who once warned about changes by the end of this century, now tell us that significant change is under way right now, bringing more and bigger storm surges to coastal and river cities, more droughts endangering food supplies and causing drinking-water shortages, and more forest fires in inhabited areas. Adapting to climate changes already under way and preventing the worst future climate change scenarios make protecting natural systems and reshaping real-estate development an immediate, urgent problem, not just an issue for future generations.
An Example of Improved Sustainability and City Design
In one place, at least, an improved growth model started with a very simple idea: to bring homes and workplaces closer together. Back in the 1980s in Vancouver, on Canada's west coast, in a delta crisscrossed by branches of its river and by many inlets from the sea, there was a big worry about huge costs for new roads and bridges. Civic leaders decided it would be cheaper and easier to cluster population growth into a few dense town centers than pay for the expensive infrastructure needed to support sprawl. They believed that this was especially relevant in the inner city where most jobs were located. This inner city sits on a large peninsula, and it had lots of room to grow by replacing obsolete rail yards and industrial areas. The idea took off and morphed into a rich and full vision of a fresh way to live in North America, adding progressive notions about livability, environmental compatibility, fiscal management, entrepreneurial governance, and inclusive public engagement as well as an emphasis on elegant urban design. Then, in the early 1990s, an influx of new investment turned these ideas into action, and the whole inner city was quickly and dramatically transformed, creating what has been popularly dubbed "Vancouverism."
The results are now there for all to see (figure 1-1). Today, more than 110,000 people live comfortably in the core city in a dense, mixed-use, walkable, and gracious arrangement. The population includes not just "singles" and "empty nesters" but also thousands of families with children, low-income households, and people with special needs. A constellation of neighborhoods — with varied housing types, local shops, some dispersed workplaces, and commercial and community services — clusters around a business center that offers just short of 300,000 jobs. These neighborhoods are all framed within a well-developed open-space system of parks, beaches, pedestrian walkways, and protected bikeways. Origins and destinations for jobs, housing, recreation, and day-to-day activities are close together. More than 60 percent of trips are made by nonmotorized means, mostly walking but also by bicycle and even rollerblades. Most other trips are on transit, including a local bus system and rail rapid transit for longer trips. Fewer commuters come into the core city in their cars every year, although the job base is growing. Instead, improved transit and better proximity are handling the growth. Walking trips are usually short, about fifteen or twenty minutes or less, and walking from one end of the core city to another need take no more than thirty-five minutes. Walking and cycling have become the natural way to move around, bringing exercise into everyday activity. Walking is comfortable, enjoyable, healthy, and much more convenient than auto or even transit travel. The car is definitely accommodated, but urban activity does not defer to the car or give it more than adequate space. There are no freeways coming into the core city, and there are almost no surface parking lots. Some of the old automobile infrastructure is being demolished and the land used for other diverse purposes. The street system supports all transportation modes, and the public realm is a complete network that ties everything together (figure 1-2).
In Vancouver's inner city, there is an emphasis on amenity: attractive architecture and landscape, protected views of mountains and water, shelter from the weather, cultural and community facilities, nightlife, a vivacious sidewalk culture, and a domestic feel in neighborhoods (figure 1-3). Almost all the cost of this commonwealth of amenities is secured from new projects as developer contributions, and almost no capital funds have had to be drawn from the tax base or public borrowing.
Shorelines in Vancouver have been reconstructed to regenerate marine life. The local landscape now hosts urban wildlife. Waste recycling is pervasive. District energy plants are being expanded. One neighborhood, the former Athletes Village for the 2010 Olympics, has a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum Neighborhood certification because of advanced systems for managing waste, water, and energy. Prime agriculture land is protected throughout the region, and the overall prevailing density of the region is about twice that of Seattle, Washington, a similar-sized U.S. city nearby. Vancouver's core city is as close to carbon neutral as any place in North America.
Hundreds of thousands of people were involved in designing the overall plan and the area plans for Vancouver's inner city, but the city government has taken the leadership role and facilitated a widely supported vision. The whole place is carefully and comprehensively planned, and the entire structure of regulations has been reinvented. In this new kind of regulatory regime, there are few fixed rules for Vancouver's development management, although the urban design intentions for the core city are among the most articulated and codified in the world. Regulations are flexible and offer incentive opportunities. Development is seen as a privilege rather than a right, and decisions are negotiated. There is peer review and public review of all proposals, and all specific development approvals are made in public outside the political context of the city council. The politicians adopt the plans and policies and audit the processes, but day-to-day decisions on development applications are made by experienced professionals with careful input of citizens, peers, and proponents.
Other Successes That Point Toward a New Growth Model
Many other downtowns, suburban centers, and neighborhoods have also seen great improvements, and despite all the inequities and deterioration that still afflict cities, urban centers are in a very good place compared with where they were in the 1970s. Cities like Boston, San Francisco, Toronto, and Charleston, South Carolina, are among the important success stories. Including examples beyond Canada and the United States, Helsinki is in the midst of transforming old industrial districts into attractive new neighborhoods designed to absorb development that would otherwise go to suburbs. Hammarby Sjöstad in Stockholm is a model of a sustainable urban district. Copenhagen, Melbourne, and New York City are among the places that have made their cities more walkable and friendlier for cyclists. In Boston, Madrid, and Seoul, the blighting influence of old elevated highways has been replaced with new urban landscapes. Transit-oriented development is beginning to give a new structure to suburbs; there are many examples of compact but comfortable residential areas that are beautiful to see, and new and old public places that are delightful to be in. There has been great progress in preserving old and historic buildings and districts, in encouraging the efficiencies and convenience of mixed-use business centers, and more recently in making individual buildings more sustainable.
Much of this success has come from partnerships created by government, the development community, and citizens. They have helped counteract misguided urban practices that were meant to be reforms but that distorted and diminished urban and suburban life, practices that started during the building boom after World War II and continue to this day.
Turning the Exceptional into Everyday Practice
The best examples of livable and responsible development continue to be exceptions. We need to find a way to turn promising exceptions into everyday practice. We need to integrate the practice of planning and urban design with environmental conservation and change the design of our built environment to adapt to climate change and create more desirable places.
Despite its many successes, Vancouver still has big sustainability and livability issues. Housing affordability is an increasingly difficult problem, and finding solutions is now taking up a lot of civic time and resources in both public and private sectors. Homelessness has decreased from past years, but it is not yet eradicated. Although the core is progressive on all the fronts of sustainability, the larger region is not performing nearly as well. Auto dominance still prevails, traffic can be frustrating, pollution is still endemic, suburbs continue to expand into open lands, and newer neighborhoods are incomplete. These problems bring down the overall level of sustainable performance for the city region when compared with the lead cities elsewhere in the world. So, Vancouver is only a partial success, and partial successes are not going to be enough.
Ecodesign: Integrating Environmental Preservation and Livability
Vancouver is part of a movement in many parts of the world that is rethinking how to manage the relationship between the built and the natural environments using innovation and experimentation. We like the term ecodesign to define this new perspective: a way of looking at cities and their hinterlands that integrates considerations of environmental soundness and resilience with human health and well-being. It is an attitude about how the city needs to be built or transformed, but also managed and operated, to find a harmony between urban systems and natural systems in a way that also contributes to human experience and social life. It embraces an ethical tenet that in our settlements, we hold responsibilities — not just for ourselves but also for our setting, with all the rich life and patterns that exist there, and for all the people around us.
Applying an understanding of natural ecosystems to the development of cities and regions goes back at least as far as the late 1960s to the pioneering work of Ian McHarg and Philip Lewis. We have also learned from our own long experience as city designers how important it is to incorporate an understanding of natural systems into the design and development process. We are not the first to use the term ecodesign. It has been defined by Ken Yeang as the integration of the natural and constructed environments and applied by him primarily to architecture. Others have used this term for product design. We believe that it can have a more general meaning for cities and suburbs. Eco reminds us that everything we build becomes part of both local and global natural systems and will influence them for good or ill. Design is a reminder that new development should always be part of a coherent, responsive structure that satisfies what people need and want.
If, as we do, you see ecodesign as a summation of diverse innovations now under way or being thought about around the world, you know that it cannot be doctrinaire. It has to embrace the complexity of city patterns and city life and the endless things that people want to do and to build. It has to aspire to reconcile the many functional aspects and mutual accords for communities to live together, as well as the experiential dimensions for personal and family fulfillment that, all together and in great variety, create a robust and satisfying place. It must also embrace the beautiful complexity of nature, the interplays within an ecosystem, and the way that human beings can be a part of that ecosystem without diminishing it or dominating it. It aspires to many different kinds of arrangements and circumstances between people and their setting whereby we respect, conserve, and even contribute to the balances that are essential for tranquil coexistence.
A Pathway, Not a Prescription
We see ecodesign principles reflected in many separate examples of urban repair or new development. Sometimes these examples are small interventions, and sometimes they are specific innovative systems to be interwoven within an existing urban fabric. More often, ecodesign has involved arrangements for new or reclaimed urban districts. But nowhere yet do we see ecodesign describe the complete pattern of any city.
The forward-thinking ideas implemented in relatively few places could become the prevailing way to manage growth and development throughout the United States and Canada as well as elsewhere in the world. Such an outcome is feasible, both economically and politically. It is possible to improve the quality of life for the people who live in a city or suburb and at the same time offer new and different opportunities for investors and developers. The same principles can help governments cope with unprecedented levels of growth and change. In this book, we describe practical measures whose effectiveness has already been demonstrated and which, if used more widely and more pervasively, can produce significant benefits now and help secure the future for those who come after us.
There are four interrelated parts to creating an ecodesign framework that can inform the development of cities and suburbs. The chapters of this book are built around these themes:
Adapting development to already inevitable climate changes while protecting the environment for the future: This is the focus of chapter 2.
Balancing transportation modes to relieve traffic congestion while supporting more compact and better-organized places: Innovative ideas to this end are surveyed in chapter 3.
Replacing outmoded development regulations and government incentives that continue to steer urban growth in the wrong directions: The history of this trend, the difficulties with the results produced, and the viable alternatives for government development management are discussed in chapter 4. The need to tap into and reshape consumer trends to drive change is also discussed in this chapter.
Reshaping streets, public places, and public buildings to make a livable environment available to all, rather than just affluent people living in a few special areas: The potential of this public domain is explored in chapter 5 along with directions to shape the public realm for environmental, social, and economic benefits.
Excerpted from Ecodesign for Cities and Suburbs by Jonathan Barnett, Larry Beasley. Copyright © 2015 Jonathan Barnett and Larry Beasley. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1. Ecodesign: Combining Sustainability with Creating Attractive Places Chapter 2. Adapting to Climate Change, Limiting Global Warming, Designing Sustainable Cities and Regions Chapter 3. Balancing Cars and Other Transportation Chapter 4. Regulations that Recognize the Natural Environment, Create Compact, Mixed Use Business Centers, and Shape Walkable Neighborhoods Chapter 5. Designing and Managing the Public Realm Chapter 6. Implementing Ecodesign Notes